There are times in history where the right man in the right place can make all the difference. Accidents of fate, the changing circumstances of fortune, and the randomness of events all conspire to turn predictability into uncertainty; yet a man of learning, vision, and character may, at times, interpose himself in the middle of these whirlwinds and by his actions change the course of history. It happens all the time.
One of the precious few Mexican manuscripts that survived the Spanish conquest, the Codex Borgia has a mysterious and tortured history. The book is a collection of prophecies, and is also considered to be one of the finest representations of the Aztec ceremonial calendar. Like many Mesoamerican antiquities, we know precious little about its history; it appears to have been sent back to Europe soon after the Spanish conquest, and somehow made its way to Italy during the eighteenth century. It may have been a gift from a Spanish clergyman to some prince or nobleman, who kept it among his personal effects. We do know that it was discovered among Cardinal Stefano Borgia’s papers by famed explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1805; he inspected the manuscript personally and claimed that “I believe the codex belonged to the family of the Guistiniani princes.”
If so, the fact that the manuscript survived at all is a miracle. But this is how things sometimes are in history: at precisely the right moment, the right man comes along and transforms disaster into salvation. Cardinal Stefano Borgia (bearing that name so famous from Italian Renaissance history) came across the manuscript by pure chance. Borgia (1731–1804) was no ordinary cardinal, but a man of consuming antiquarian interests, prodigious linguistic abilities, and pronounced scholarly temperament. He so valued learning that he was known to sell even his own personal effects to buy books. He was proficient not only in the classical languages, but also in Amharic, Coptic, Armenian, and Hebrew. Such a man knew what an original manuscript was when he saw it. Perhaps if there had been more men like him, a far greater number of irreplaceable ancient Mexican artifacts would have been preserved.
Borgia happened to be walking around the palace of one of these princes, and saw some children playing with a vellum book containing strange symbols and colorings. Servants, unaware of the book’s value, had given it to the children as a toy. But Borgia immediately recognized this weird manuscript for it for what it was, and saved it. The children had already destroyed the first and last of its pages; had he not appeared on the scene at that very instant, it is likely that the entire book would have been irretrievably lost. But this did not happen. He took the manuscript himself, and housed it in his own museum. Whether he paid for it, I have not been able to determine; but if not, there was never an appropriation so justified.
He must have been a man of considerable political acumen as well, for Pope Pius VI appointed him to be the municipal head of Rome as Napoleon approached the city in 1798. Borgia even found time to establish a museum in Velletri, and made it his life’s work to fill this space with valuable rarities from all over the world. Just before he died, he turned over his collection of manuscripts to the Santa Congregazione di Propaganda Fide. The book was displayed in the Ethnographic Museum in the congregation’s palace from 1883, and is now in the Vatican Library, that vast storehouse of all things ancient. The book itself contains about 76 pages, and is folded into 39 sheets of animal skin; in length, it measures 10.34 meters. The subject matter of the book is religious and prophetic: it describes the origin and nature of some Aztec gods, as well as the deeds of Quetzalcoatl and his evil twin brother Xolotl.
Fate only needs the intervention of one good man. Sometimes this is all that is required: the right man in the right place. As I see it, this is a fact worth reflecting on. With the crush of modern life, and its attendant responsibilities, there is a tendency for us to think that our actions mean little. We are tempted to believe that nothing matters. Yet the story of the Codex Borgia’s rescue from oblivion shows that this is not true.
One man–the right man–can make all the difference. I was reading an article in the New Yorker Magazine yesterday about the exploits and tragic death of British explorer Henry Worsley. The author notes that Ernest Shackleton was an idol for Worsley, and that the former was known to be an incredibly capable leader of men. Shackleton knew how to get his men out of the worst scrapes imaginable:
As one polar explorer put it, “For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Absolutely right, I think. When the chips were down, and when disaster was hovering on the horizon, Shackleton was the man to call. And when precious books were perched on the edge of oblivion, Fate required the presence of Cardinal Borgia at just the right time. Is there some guiding hand of Fate that permits things to be so? I do not know. But of one thing I am certain: one man can make all the difference. And when he is at the right place at the right time, he can move mountains.
Read Pantheon today, which contains a stirring account of explorer Douglas Mawson’s polar odyssey, the greatest one-man feat of survival in history: